In Florida, state attorneys have been delaying and even halting some marijuana cases. But on Monday, federal prosecutors announced that they would be taking over the state’s caseload. That means the feds will now pursue the cases Florida state attorneys have slowed or dropped. The handoff comes amid a transition moment in Florida’s policies regarding marijuana, medical cannabis and hemp. And it could establish legal precedents that allow the federal government to step in when states decide there’s no point in prosecuting certain marijuana convictions.
According to one state attorney, Florida’s Northern District alone handles more than 1,000 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a year. And instead of reducing prosecutions as Florida moves to decriminalize cannabis and legalize hemp, the feds will take the reigns.
Legal Hemp Slows Marijuana Prosecutions in Florida
On July 1, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1020 into law. SB 1020 effectively legalizes hemp in the state of Florida, establishing a hemp regulatory program and directing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) to draft a plan that follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) products.
Florida’s legalization of hemp, however, created some complications for state attorneys. The problem, according to state attorney Jack Campbell, is that Florida law enforcement agencies don’t really have the ability to tell the difference between hemp and cannabis.
Under its legal definition, hemp is simply any cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3 percent THC. But police drug detection kits aren’t calibrated to measure that threshold. Instead, they’re designed to detect even the smallest traces of THC, in order to produce evidence for prosecutors that a person possessed, used or sold weed.
But now that hemp is legal, there are all kinds of totally lawful products and plants out there that would trigger a positive on a police THC test. The problem is that this test is essentially meaningless, since it can’t distinguish between legal and illegal products containing THC.
“The Legislature is still very clear that marijuana is illegal in this state,” Campbell said. “They’re also very clear that hemp is legal in this state. So we just need to be able to differentiate.”
But they can’t differentiate, at least not at the moment, without relying on expensive lab tests. In other words, by pouring more time and resources into pursuing minor possession crimes. So hemp legalization, combined with Florida cities moving to decriminalize and reduce penalties for marijuana possession, prompted state’s attorneys to delay and even drop some of their misdemeanor possession cases.
Suspects Will Likely Face Harsher Penalties in Federal Court
The feds, however, aren’t going to let Floridians off that easy. U.S. Attorney of Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe, whose office oversees 25 Florida counties, is taking over where the state was less willing to go. In Keefe’s view, the DEA makes the federal criminal legal system better equipped to tell the difference between illegal cannabis and legal hemp. And that means federal prosecutors will be able to go after those cases that hemp legalization had delayed.
The move has rankled some defense lawyers who are concerned people charged with marijuana crimes will face harsher penalties in federal court. For now, it’s not exactly clear what level of marijuana offenses Keefe plans to prosecute.
But on Monday, Keefe’s his office released a statement that federal prosecutors would prioritize violent criminals and larger-scale marijuana traffickers. Keefe also said his office won’t go after Florida’s growing medical cannabis industry. “This office has no intent to discourage or deter the evolution of the Northern District of Florida’s legal marijuana industry, which is rapidly changing at the state level,” the statement reads. Instead, Keefe said federal prosecutors will focus on cases involving criminal gun violence, dangerous drug trafficking, human trafficking and domestic terrorism.
“The fact remains,” the statement continues, “that marijuana is currently illegal under federal law.” But Keefe’s office won’t devote resources to federally prosecuting activities that Florida has decided are legal, such as possessing medical marijuana with a license.